Azeem Rafiq has had a career like no other. Nearly two years since he was released by Yorkshire, he talks to Taha Hashim about leading World Cup winners, personal tragedy, the support of Adil Rashid and racism in county cricket.
Azeem Rafiq is still just 29, but the name’s rung around for a while. Born in Pakistan, Barnsley became home in 2001, and just five years later he was captaining England’s under 15s. At 17 came the Yorkshire debut, and in 2010 the off-spinning all-rounder was entrusted with leading the next generation at the Under 19 World Cup. You might be familiar with some of the names under his wing: Joe Root, Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler, James Vince. Four men who took the field at Lord’s in last year’s World Cup final. Three of them senior England captains. Two of them Test skippers. “It’s great to say you’ve captained them, but I’m more chuffed that they’ve gone on and achieved their dreams,” Rafiq tells me.
Such is the nature of age-group cricket, when boys are yet to become men. Yet there are no guarantees that the mind and body will handle the professional game. After the early rises, the Rafiq story has been, in his own words, “a bumpy ride”.
There were early highs: in 2012 he became Yorkshire’s youngest-ever captain, going unbeaten in his six T20 matches standing in for the injured Andrew Gale, and he wrapped up that same season with eight wickets and a pair of fifties against Essex, as the White Rose were promoted back to Division One. Then came a tour of India with England’s Performance Programme, and his first slide out of the professional game.
“I went on an England ‘A’ trip and struggled with my bowling. I had a knee injury which we sort of rehabbed a couple of times, and then I had to have an operation, and I lost all confidence in my bowling. It was a really difficult time for me, and young spinners go through that phase.
“In terms of white-ball cricket I was still up there; it was more I lost complete confidence in my red-ball cricket, and that started taking its toll on both formats.”
By the end of the summer of 2014, both he and Yorkshire knew it was time for a fresh start. After training with other counties, he returned to Headingley in 2016 to resume what at first appeared a heartening comeback: that season he took 15 T20 wickets at 18.46 as Yorkshire reached Finals Day, received his county cap, and enjoyed a late-season run in the side as Yorkshire pushed hard for the Championship title. White-ball cricket appeared to be his calling after some impressive performances in 2017, but personal tragedy derailed him the following year.
During a one-day game against Warwickshire in May 2018, Rafiq received the call that his son was stillborn. Months later, Yorkshire decided he was surplus to requirements. A period of time in Pakistan followed – including a first-class appearance in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy – but the struggles didn’t relent.
“The last couple of years have been incredibly tough,” he says. “To go through what I went through personally, with the stillbirth of my child, while I was at a cricket match, and to lose my contract on the back of that – it wasn’t ideal and it wasn’t what I thought was right. It set me back a couple of years. That’s for another day, the whole circumstances around it.
“I went over to Pakistan for several months, I played a little bit of cricket, but it was really difficult to get myself to do anything because you never envisage going from the hospital straight to the graveyard. I’ll be honest, I’d lost so much trust in people around cricket, I didn’t want to come back. It broke me for a long time.”
Club cricket in the Bradford League and Minor Counties action with Lincolnshire was his lot from a playing point of view in 2019, with the pursuit of business interests, time with the family and his development as a coach the immediate priorities. A Level 4 ECB qualification is currently the goal: “When I do finish playing I want to be an international coach,” he says.
There’s plenty of credit laid at the door of the PCA, who “have been amazing from day one”, while an old Yorkshire teammate, one who he goes back with a long way, has been a close pillar of support too.
“You remember a lot of people that have a negative influence on life, but you forget the people that have been there to support you. Honestly, I don’t want to mention too many people, but one guy I do want to mention is Adil Rashid. He’s been incredible. He’s been like an older brother to me. Literally, every day, I’m either with him or at the other end of the phone. He’s been incredible support over these last two years. He’s gone above and beyond. There have been a lot of people that have rallied around me with a lot of support, so I can’t be thankful enough for that.
“We’ve known each other going up to 16, 17 years now. A majority chunk of it, we were in direct competition, but we were talking about this a couple of weeks ago – I don’t think we’ve ever had a disagreement or an argument over that time. He’s just an incredible, incredible bloke. He’s a credit to his family. A lovely, lovely guy.”
It’s a story involving Rashid, however, that sees this interview take a turn.
I ask about Rafiq’s early days coming up through the ranks as a British-Asian figurehead at Yorkshire, a club now striving to foster more fruitful relationships with its local South Asian communities. Inevitably, when Rafiq was made Yorkshire’s youngest-ever captain, the other leading story was that he was the first of Asian origin.
“Tough,” Rafiq says of his experiences coming up through the system. “When I was younger… now you look back and there were a hell of a lot of things that happened that you think: ‘You should have stopped it’. But then you look back and think: ‘Why didn’t you stop it?’
“I’ve been in dressing rooms where things have been said, and, really, I should have stopped it. I had a captain who was openly racist. Why didn’t I stop it? It was the environment. I raised my voice about it once and I was made out to be the person… I might have read Carbs [Michael Carberry] talk about a similar thing. You look back and you think the one time I did raise it, I was made out to be the person who was in the wrong. Through the years you feel like you have to do things to fit in, and I did. The minute I didn’t, I felt isolated.
“There’s one comment that stands out for me. And I remember it to this day. It was around the time of my debut. There was me, Adil Rashid, Ajmal Shahzad and Rana Naved-ul-Hasan. We’re walking onto the field and one player said: ‘There’s too many of you lot. We need to have a word about that.’
“You can imagine the sort of thing that leaves on you, and you hear these things all day, every day.
“I’ve been in that system for nearly the best part of two decades. I know how it works. I’d love to see change.”
Yorkshire CCC offered no comment in regards to Rafiq’s remarks.
Now, Rafiq is out of that system – for a second time. Philosophical in his approach, he isn’t giving up on a return to county cricket, with the option of playing in Pakistan under consideration too. “From a cricketing point of view, to come back from what I came back from in 2014 tells me I can come back from everything.”
His attentions are elsewhere for the time being, however; inspired by some altruism during lockdown, alongside his family, Rafiq has started up Matki Chai, a Pakistani tea shop, operating out of a shipping container in Rotherham.
“I’ve got a lot of friends who work in A&E at Barnsley Hospital, and at the start of lockdown me and my sister would take fruits, chocolate, just something every few days to keep them going. Then we thought, ‘Why don’t we take this a bit further?’ We started selling curries on a Saturday night to raise money for the local Barnsley Hospice, giving free meals to initially NHS staff and then all key workers. That just kicked off. We then looked around to see if we could get a commercial kitchen. Everything sort of went from there.”
There are long nights to be spent in the kitchen, but there’s another cause for joy that’s keeping Rafiq occupied too.
“We had a little one last year on the 31st July. What happened never goes away, but you learn to deal with it a lot better as time goes on. My little one now, he keeps me busy.”